Kids are expensive. At least, that’s what my parents have told me. Even if you don’t raise a child with expensive taste, the basics start to add up for families. Whether it’s food, shelter, extracurricular activities, or medical expenses, children are a significant financial commitment for their parents. It becomes even more complicated when separation and divorce are thrown into the mix. (I know, that’s a super beautiful, hope-filled picture I just painted for you – don’t you want kids now?)
But when does that financial obligation end for parents? Failure to launch stories aside, these are difficult lines to draw – especially in law. These are the questions that arise in post-separation situations when one parent is paying child support to another. The general rule of thumb is support ends when the child is no longer a child: eighteen years of age. However, there are a few factors that may lengthen the obligation for child support: chiefly among them, disability and the pursuit of post-secondary education.
We all know how expensive post-secondary education can be. I currently owe more money than I can comprehend. (Some people say you can’t put a price on a good education, but I think they’re wrong: my debt seems to have a very specific number attached to it.) But does a program like law school fit into the child support regime, or does that obligation only extend into the first post-secondary program a child attends? How comprehensive is the coverage of post-secondary educational pursuits?
It is with this question in mind that Makdissi v Masson becomes relevant for us. The case involved an applicant father and respondent mother, who were married in 1993 and divorced in 2004. They had two children. Following the separation, the Ontarian parents held joint custody until the mother moved to Quebec in 2010. In 2011, based on the mother’s annual income of $583,700 and the father’s income of $127,000, the mother was to pay $4000 per month in child support plus 82% of extraordinary expenses. Now, I know my parents say that I was expensive, but I am not entirely sure I was that expensive. But I digress.
This family strove for academic success. Both children attended the University of Ottawa for their Bachelors and Masters degrees, living with their dad throughout their education. In 2015, one of their sons moved to Toronto to pursue a PhD degree. Needless to say, this family is a bunch of smart cookies. My family decided to pursue the fine art of sarcasm and baking delicious goodies. I’ll let you decide whose family is better.
The question the court considered was whether the respondent mother owed child support to help fund the son’s PhD program. They found that, in certain circumstances, a parent may be required to support their child through a doctoral program. They said the
re is no “magical bright line cut-off” for how many university degrees one must subsidize through child support. The salient concern for the recipient-parent was whether the children remained unable to support themselves; the dependency of the children was crucial in this decision.
However, the child support payments did change to a certain extent based on the child’s move to Toronto. Usually, a payor provides child support and applicable extraordinary expenses. Now, instead of continuing to pay child support and extraordinary expenses, the parents only needed to provide for extraordinary expenses. This included the cost of tuition, books, university incidental fees, and other associated costs of education. Scholarships and bursaries were deducted. Their budding academic also needed to deduct any money he earned during the school year, as well as half his income earned through summer employment.
While interesting, Makdissi v Masson isn’t a helpful precedent because it was heavily dependent on a very particular set of facts. Given the combined wealth between the parents, the expectations of academic success, and the promises made to the kids when they were young, the children were considered “children of the marriage” until they complete all their post-secondary education, to the extent that they cannot support themselves.
This may give some the idea that they can go ahead and shake their parents down for some extra cash to help pay for their law school tuition; nevertheless, you may want to read this article to the end. The case is problematic as a precedent because a contextual analysis is required for future courts to determine whether this same obligation applies to another family. This is particularly true for parents with lower combined incomes or families who prefer to teach their children sarcasm over academic rigour. While only reflecting on this possibility in obiter, the judge did mention that the situation might be different if the parents were of more modest means.
While vague, it does speak to the wide scope of support available to adult children in their post-secondary education. It clarifies that there is no fixed cut-off date in the law.